Edward Burra: The Unquiet Landscape

Near Whitby, Yorkshire 1972

I want to return to the subject of Edward Burra and his paintings.  A few days ago I wrote about the retrospective exhibition currently on show at the Djanogly Gallery in Nottingham.  After returning from the show, my attention was drawn to the chapter in Christopher Neve’s book, Unquiet Landscape: Places and Ideas in 20th Century English Painting, Faber 1990, in which Neve, in his limpid prose, seems to inhabit Burra’s consciousness, probing the psychological roots of Burra’s strange and sometimes disturbing late landscapes:

Burra paints the hill as a looming pneumatic slope.  Often it is things we dread that most attract us.

The big house and the sickly boy. It was a big house, with a large porch and dwarfing mantelpieces. It was threatened from the front by voluminous trees. For the past ninety years the drive had grown narrower and more tortuous as the trees grew larger. At the back there was a lawn and a terrace and a circular formal pond. All this was at Playden, in Sussex, on the last rise before Rye. The house, called Springfield, had belonged to Burra’s family since 1864. He had been sent away to prep school but, being constantly ill, had received the rest of his education at home. He was a sickly child who worked at watercolours in this bedroom. He lived at home and would continue to work in his bedroom, going up the enormous staircase to draw after breakfast each day until he was nearly fifty.

The trees that stood close to the windows were almost his first subject, especially a gigantic cedar, the level upon level of whose blue branches seemed to be hiding something. A Miss Bradley, in Rye, gave him drawing lessons. He was small and weak. It was his imagination that grew.

Jazz records, 78s in brown cardboard covers, had energy. He painted to jazz. The allegro negro cocktail shaker. Negroes seemed to have the vitality he could not have. Films and novels about low life in the Mediterranean gave him a taste for the louche world he had never seen, the blue curasao with which to subvert the straight-laced barrister’s household in Sussex.

Standing next to a small youth at the entrance scholarship examination at the Royal College of Art, in London, Eric Ravilious could not help noticing that he had made no attempt to draw the life model   on the unaccustomedly large page. Burra spent the day drawing just one eye, in the middle of the paper, in meticulous detail.

When   he   drew  landscapes they were imaginary settings for bizarre figures, the sailors and divorced contraltos of his imagination, in watercolours of which the characteristic colour was a glowing aubergine.

When he went to Marseilles, he was observed by Anthony Powell to keep always out of the sun, so that he had the complexion of a prisoner or an invalid, which he was. He spoke hardly at all, but always with withering aptness. What he liked to draw best were: waiters, seedy decor, nightclubs, cheap suits. He enjoyed the brash and racy. A lifelong exhaustion made him prey on other people’s fun, especially (what he really savoured) bad behaviour, unkind laughter, mendacity, waspishness, all-out malicious enjoyment and any kind of excess. Bad feeling motivated him. It gave his work the energy he did not have.

It was an obscure knack. Through the people he struck out in a leisurely way for the landscape as though in search of absent thoughts, absent causes. When he was younger (though he looked old) he would sit at a corner table, either in reality or in imagination, at some dive like Issy Ort’s and commit the bird-women and negroes to memory so that he could draw them afterwards, hearing the same side of a favourite 78 repeatedly, feeling its elation and vitality in the saxophone solo each time. As he got older he began to see through people. The carnival skeletons and waitresses danced off into the distance. That tinny noise of a Mediterranean festival band, conscripted from boys in the local town, faded. When the people had dragged their smiles away, he was left with the landscape, a big empty distant dreamlike landscape with electric air and the threat of thunder promising relief and a wash of rain.

For the last fifteen years of his life he concentrated chiefly on painting landscapes which are odder and more potent than anything else he did. He denied ever having loved anybody, and now the people were gone. Conrad Aiken, Paul Nash and Malcolm Lowry had added to his ideas as if to a postcard collection or a surreal montage. He had blocked his window with hardboard in order to avoid seeing the view across Rye.  A picturesque town of old rippling roofs and cobbled streets, a tea-shop place was the last thing he needed. While he was at the cinema matinee in his head, his idea was to avoid coming out, blinking, into the sunlight.

Never liking it, it was typical that he should live in Rye all his life. He preferred the gravel pits and sheds on the road to the harbour. He liked the high view down on to the recreation ground, the fisty trees, the debris generated by the   workshops and fishing boats on the winding estuary. He liked the way the slug of Stone Hill crept across the far side of the Marsh.

Under The Hill, 1964-5

In 1953 he left Springfield at last and moved into the disliked town, to a house built on the site of a Methodist chapel bombed during the war. From here, high up, he could look across the Marsh with its snaking river, razor~sharp dikes and flashes of lying water.

From The Ramparts, 1959-61

From side to side his eye shot, but mainly into the far distance unclouded by mist and atmosphere. Like a cockroach creeping up on an outsize ham, he had approached landscape via people. Now he began to paint an extraordinary sequence of panoramic views, quite bereft of figures, which seem as though the feverish child shut in his old bedroom at Springfield, tiring finally of waspishness and gossip, had put his eye down to the level of his eiderdown and looked along it.

A great deal of what he knew of painting figures he brought to landscape. Views that might normally have provided consolation seem in Burra to convey profound unease. Pictures which on the face of it suggest those cheerful expanses unrolling in posters before the Bank-holiday tandem cyclist or traveller by Greenline bus become suddenly distasteful. The metamorphoses which, in paintings of people, had turned a nose into a Venetian beak, now made the most inoffensive landscape feature dilate uncomfortably and strain at its constraining skin. All the senses, not just his visual sense, were heightened, taut.  As to an adolescent, or someone aping insanity for fun, the physical world seemed unnaturally bright, unnaturally actual.  The smallest event could become an intense and terrifying adventure. […]

The extreme oddness of these pictures is very difficult to come to terms with. When they confront you they are quite different from their effect in reproduction. For watercolours, they are abnormally large, very big indeed, often built up by joining several sheets together as the design, like the landscape, took on a life of its own and seemed to expand. They have a dreamlike clarity of surface because they were painted flat on a table with all contrasts of tone deliberately exaggerated and a very careful attention to edges, or rims, so that forms approach each other and stop short in a worrying way that is not at all the way of forms in the real world. This produces a look of glassy clarity and clean air which makes vision boundless as if to the magnetic mountain. […]

The working method which contributed to this strangeness was developed in his bedroom as a child and never varied. He could work anywhere, on rickety tabletops in hotels if necessary. He explained this as being the least taxing method possible, because he was almost permanently tired and would have worked lying down if that had been practical. Beginning on one page at the bottom right-hand corner, he progressed upwards and to the left in an arc, adding subsequent sheets when necessary until the drawn design was complete, and then  filling it in. The process of selection he used was mainly the effect of memory. He did not paint on the spot but sometimes used drawings made after seeing a view. Because the drawings were done after seeing the landscape, and the painting from them was often not begun until many months later when the scene had come to the boil in his mind, there were two clear intervals between seeing the subject and making the picture during which his imagination had the chance to act on it. There was yeast in his imagination, as there is in nightmares. The effect was often that two or more swollen or stretched views were combined while giving the impression that the picture was one landscape painted from direct observation.

Industrial Landscape, 1973

He would sit in a car, watching.  All over England, people park cars at strategic high points and sit looking at extensive views as though the act of looking is somehow self-justifying. The separateness of a view emphasizes your own impotence. There is little you can do with a view except to stare at it. Beginning in 1965, Burra was driven on regular car journeys around England by his sister Anne. It was she who chose where to stop. They went to empty places where he could see a long way, in East Anglia, on the Yorkshire moors and in the Welsh borders. He sat wherever she chose and watched impassively from lay-bys, just as he had watched human antics through the fumes of nightclubs, memorizing the faces of waiters so that a long time later he could make accurate and compelling pictures from what he had seen.

Landscape, Dartmoor

Was it disenchantment with people that led him repeatedly to paint these empty places, or a fascinated disenchantment with the places themselves?   He seemed to dread them.  They swell, stretch, curve, crease. Bruised clouds stack over them and break open. Floods and fields make their puddles of watercolour. Trees are abruptly lit up in negative as if by a nuclear blast. Rock outcrops are swollen with disease. Chasms dwarf. Bile-yellow and a punishing green can hardly contain themselves. […] Imagine a purple cabbage cut crisply through in section: the curving, vivid edges and faultless intricate divisions are the vegetable shapes in Burra’s landscapes, perfectly adapted to watercolour. But what gives the pictures their emotional potency is their raking depth to the horizon, their roller-coaster perspective.

In the Lake District, Number 2, 1973

I suppose it was always a long way down one of his bars, but by 1960 he could do almost anything with perspective.   Perspective became his longest suit. Romney Marsh may have given him the idea but he found countless ways of extending it. Railway tracks, motorways, dikes and lines of pylons cut directly up his designs from bottom to top. They sink into dead ground and reappear climbing distant slopes. They go over ridge after ridge and still the atmosphere is clear enough to see them plainly. Lines go up his pictures like thermometers rising. Roads bolt upwards to the horizon as though making for a very distant burrow.


The landscape is empty because the traffic never stops. The pitiless, remorseless, nose-to-tail traffic; the mobile junkyard of half-human lorries which, snorting their own fumes and grimacing with effort, breast the hills to transport graffiti across intersections and over viaducts until the world is deaf and dumb and all the countryside shaken to bits.

English Country Scene I, c.1970

These machines can turn on each other, earthmovers bite bits out of one another with metal jaws, dog eat dog, and only the half-crazed Bank-Holiday pillion-rider, hair flying, cutting through the traffic, can be seen to be almost entirely human. […]

Picking a Quarrel, 1968

No one would venture willingly off the road into the unholy places where he sometimes shows an isolated figure. A faceless figure, darkened by a trick of the light under leafless trees, is digging a grave or working an allotment.

I cannot see their faces. . .
the knobs of their ankles
catch the moonlight as they pass the stile
and cross the moor among skeletons of bog oak
following the track from the gallows back to the town
– Louis MacNeice.

The Allotments, 1962-3

The only traffic on a forlorn path through a graveyard of boulders (in Connemara) is a figure, the same figure like Death, hooded by an army blanket, repeated three times as though at different stages on its journey. None of the three will ever catch its other selves up, separated by the landscape and by time, its furthest self already distant, moving as surely towards the horizon as the reddleman on the heath. How effortlessly the landscape outlives the traveller! The heart has rotted out of the trees, out of the figures and out of the views themselves.

Connemara, 1962-3

Views across chalk Downs to factory chimneys in Sussex; the Weald seen from above, bulging like the bottom of a boy scout on a bicycle; the cloisonne pattern of Cornish fields broken off by the sea; Dartmoor ready to murder lost hikers; the Lake District with its knees up under the wet viridian blanket; an industrial town itching the lap of a valley; the scarred high places of Yorkshire and Northumberland; hills in Snowdonia like the stockinged heads of criminals; the Wye Valley in a vast gesture parodying Wordsworth and the Sublime. Everywhere there are the giant teeth of broken viaducts, dizzy quarries, white cauliflowers of smoke. Who will give you sixpence for a cup of tea, a cup of comfort, in such a landscape, where the insane traffic throws grit in the face of the receding hitch-hiker and all the meadow plants are poisonous?

Wye Valley

No one has made a more convincing case than Burra against finer feelings in landscape. Even the traffic must have seemed to him to have an energy which he lacked. He watched the countryside as though craving extremes, and painted it as though something terrible were about to happen. Depicting people or depicting landscape, he was a kind of voyeur. About mountains and valleys he made sharp, exaggerated comment. He put round malicious rumours about places so that we see them in a new way. But an imaginative truth always stands for a real truth, and if he played up the awesome, the flawed and threatening, we can see the accuracy of it sticking up through the pelt of fields and moors whenever we look.

Asked about the meaning of his landscape paintings, he gave a version of the reply which I suspect he often used. He simply said: ‘Call in a psychiatrist.’ With his air of subversion he made isolation a virtue. In some ways we are over-civilized. We are surrounded by, and constantly react to, art that insulates us against real feeling.  That includes an easy view of landscape. In its place, Burra shows us a distraught countryside, never limited by its usual benign appearance,  in the hope that we may be unsettled enough to have some feelings of our own.

When he was young he was sent by his mother to London to have his spleen attended to. Instead of going to the doctor he thought of a slightly different kind of operation – more spirited, less useful – and had himself tattooed. His attitude to landscape was very like that. He saw and painted the related but utterly unobvious; and only artists and children have the imagination and courage to do that.

Black Mountain 1968 (detail)

I also came across an article by Adrian Hamilton in The Independent which contained this observation on the late landscapes:

In later life, Burra turned more and more to landscapes. To some, these are the most beautiful – and most serene – works of his career as he turns away from man to nature. They are certainly majestic, done back in Burra’s Rye home after regular tours around the country, when he was driven by his sister. But they are also bleak in mood, as the vanishing point so beloved by the artist leads the eye through virtually treeless landscapes into infinity. Whenever man appears it is as a despoiler of the land, as in Picking a Quarrel of 1968, or as pale ghosts in Sugar Beet, East Anglia of 1973 or cowled black spirits in Black Mountain, from 1968. Burra has a particular hatred of Esso and Shell, whose emblems appear in his most aggressive works.

Billy Chappell recalled car trips with Burra and his sister Anne:

It fascinated me to watch Edward when the car halted by some especially splendid spread of hills, moorland, and deep valleys. He sat very still and his face appeared impassive. He might, I thought, have been staring at a blank wall, until I saw the intensity of his gaze.

Cornish Landscape With Figures and Tin Mine, 1975

One painting which was in the Chichester exhibition, but not included at Nottingham is Cornish Landscape With Figures and  Tin Mine.  This landscape is inspired by the ruined mine workings in Western Cornwall. The two tattooed figures were based on photographs in a French book called Les Tatouages du Milieu by Jacques Delarue and Robert Giraud. Burra himself had a tattoo done in 1928 of an oriental head with a knife through it. The man in a striped coat who appears twice was seen by Burra in a pub in Penzance, while the doleful figure eating a Cornish pasty with crippled hands is a self-portrait.

An English Country Scene II, 1970

Another painting not on show at Nottingham is this watercolour, based on the landscape near Buxton (it looks like it could be the Cat and Fiddle road between Macclesfield and Buxton).  Burra visited the area with his sister Anne in July 1969. He was unafraid of showing man’s impact on the natural landscape, and records the traffic-clogged roads snaking around the hills, giving the lorries and vehicles animalistic characteristics.

A View at Cornwall

See also


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